Conflicts: challenges and opportunities for prophetic witness

Who among us hasn’t experienced conflict in our communities? We are far from a paradisiacal state of absolute peace. From my experience, the theme of conflict easily provokes a feeling of malaise. It brings us back to the day-to-day realities that we experience. Ignoring conflicts, not wanting to see them, not talking about them, ignoring them or rushing back to a state of apparent tranquillity without managing them constructively are attitudes and habits that we observe, particularly in our religious circles. It is therefore not surprising that this has consequences on our community life, and confreres continue to brood with frustration and discontent.

Latent conflicts

My sensitivity to community conflicts has gradually developed, shaped, and intensified over the last 20 years due to the interactive and participative programmes on conflict management, prevention, resolution, and transformation I have organised with religious men and women from different institutes. I discover a keen, alert eye that spots latent, hidden, underlying conflicts quickly. Several confreres have already remarked to me that I ‘create’ conflicts. Create is not the right word because it is more a question of revealing what is hidden. It’s a shame that we don’t talk, or don’t talk enough, about these latent conflicts. We do not use these opportunities to strengthen and consolidate our community life. We need to create the right conditions within the community to talk about them before the situation festers, becomes too explosive, and sometimes erupts violently. Naming a conflict, tackling it as a community, listening to each other, taking care not to confuse the object of the conflict with the confrere opposite, looking for solutions together and agreeing to transform the situation constructively – this is not a dream. It’s a practice that we don’t learn enough to live out continually in our communities.

Interculturality

I wonder if some of the uneasiness stems from our representations of conflict. Personally, I see conflict as an opportunity for change, a possibility for ongoing transformation. A community that maintains tranquillity and the status quo at all costs deprives itself of the opportunity to grow and move forward as one. According to Georg Simmel, conflict, divergence, and disputes always go hand in hand with some relationships, such as an encounter with the other. We experience moments of conflict because we are not indifferent to each other. When we want to build intercultural communities with a view to prophetic witness, we inevitably come up against many intercultural misunderstandings. So, I ask myself: are we, the Missionaries of Africa, putting enough effort into learning and acquiring intercultural skills? The challenge is for each of us to be well-equipped to manage, resolve, and even constructively transform our conflicts. Going through this transformation process together consolidates mutual trust and motivates, stimulates and encourages full involvement in community life and projects. The process of conflict transformation, therefore, strengthens relations between confreres and reinforces the spirit of belonging and shared identity.

In Brussels

I recently found an interesting poster while walking in the Etterbeek district of Brussels. The commune offers an interpersonal mediation service to residents. When neighbours come into conflict, for example, over noise, pollution or different habits and lifestyles, they can call on the services of mediators. Mediators are neutral third parties who offer their expertise and help to find a solution that best suits the parties in conflict. The Church and religious institutes have not yet developed mediation to any great extent. This is a pity because these mediators can provide an interesting alternative in our communities, especially when the conflict between confreres worsens and risks blocking relations. When this happens, the Provincial himself or his delegate is called upon to intervene forcefully.

In our missionary commitments

I want to expand the theme of mediation beyond our Missionaries of Africa communities and focus more on our missionary commitments.

At the last General Chapter, we set ourselves some missionary priorities: “to be sent to areas of fracture, to the peripheries of the world and of the Church”, especially among migrants, and to bear witness in “an increasingly polarised world where tribalism, racism, religious fundamentalism and greed divide people” (Chapter Acts 2022, p.21). These priorities inevitably lead us into conflicting contexts and situations.

Let’s take migration as an example. Several elections are coming up in Europe, including those of the European Union. There is no doubt that the issue of migration and asylum is being used to polarise, stir up resentment, propagate racist and xenophobic stereotypes, provoke negative emotions and anger against migrants, and escalate conflicts, including through violence. The following comment by Klaus Kraemer is revealing. According to him, distributional conflicts caused by economic inequality within a nation are not directed against the “top” (the rich, the privileged) but against foreigners and immigrants, i.e. towards the ” bottom” and the “outside”.

What do we do about these latent and open conflicts? How do we react? The Catholic Church calls on us to welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants and refugees (Francis, World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2018). Concerning integration, let us note that the practice of social mediation, particularly intercultural mediation, has enormous potential to contribute to building social cohesion and social peace. Besides, we are called upon to foster the mutual enrichment of cultures (John Paul II, World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2005), to mutually recognise the richness, possibilities and limits of cultures (Fratelli Tutti, 147), and to live the culture of encounter (Fratelli Tutti, 215). Through our intercultural commitments, we live the Mission Inter Gentes fully and authentically, contributing to peace, social cohesion and universal brotherhood.

At the same time, we are called to ensure that a political framework exists within which decision-makers guarantee the welcome and protection of migrants. Consequently, our votes are crucial in elections, particularly in societies with a tendency towards tribalism and desperate recourse to an authoritarian public regime in the form of a nationalist state that defends the tribe’s interests, according to Gaël Giraud’s analysis.

I want to conclude with a wise saying by Vinicius De Moraes: “Life is the art of encounter, even if there are so many disagreements in life” (Fratelli  Tutti, 215). May our differences coexist, complementing, enriching and enlightening each other; that is our wish for all of us (Fratelli Tutti, 215).

By: Andreas Göpfert, M.Afr.

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